William Cowper and the Unforgiveable Sin He Probably Didn’t Commit

William Cowper was, despite his obvious mental instability, nothing if not industrious.

Lemuel Francis Abbott, “Portrait of William Cowper”, 1792
Lemuel Francis Abbott, “Portrait of William Cowper”, 1792 (photo: Public Domain)

Alas, poor William Cowper. An accomplished poet who lived in the wake of the great “Augustan Age” writers—so-called because Britain saw itself, in the 18th century, as in the midst of their own version of Caesar Augustus’s time—such as John Dryden (a convert to Catholicism), Alexander Pope (a Catholic who was not allowed to live in London due to his faith), Jonathan Swift (an Anglican clergyman exiled to Ireland), and England’s greatest savant in literature, Samuel Johnson.

Cowper (pronounced “COOP-er”), was hounded by one life-long continuous feeling of dread: that he was damned for having committed “The Unforgivable Sin.” That this dismay began at age six (before the age of reason), shows that Cowper was, at best, personally a little unbalanced, and, at worst, completely insane. His only relief? Writing poems—a “cure” he didn’t realize until age 50.

Cowper’s life reads like one long character study in suffering: his mother died when he was 6. His father, who understood the sensitive young lad about as well as fish does a bicycle, sent him to the prestigious Westminster School—where Cowper was bullied and humiliated when he wasn’t cramming Greek and Latin.

Like the later Romantic writers, George Gordon, Lord Byron and William Wordsworth, Cowper fell in love with his relative (unlike Byron and Wordsworth, it was not his sister, but his cousin, Theodora). However, some physical deformity led him away from her and into a life of life-long chastity, poetry and insanity.

His father’s continued misunderstanding of William’s mettle came to a head when he inveigled a cousin to nominate the young man as a clerk in the House of Lords. While any (sane) 18th-century Briton would have seized the plumb job (which was certainly a steppingstone to higher offices), William Cowper described his upcoming day of Oral Examinations for the career-spot in these words:

They whose spirits are formed like mine, to whom a public exhibition of themselves on any occasion, is mortal poison, may have some idea of the horrors of my situation.

To escape having to take the exam, Cowper tried to kill himself—three times: with an overdose of opium, by repeated stabbings with a pocket-knife, and finally by trying to hang himself with his belt. Thankfully, he failed in his attempt to commit suicide—and, in a happy irony did not have to take the dreaded oral examinations—but Cowper was now convinced that he had damned himself with his attempts to die by his own hand. He became the victim of almost debilitating insanity.

He spent the rest of his life (Cowper was surprisingly long-lived for an 18th century lunatic: he lived from 1731-1800) trying to find some solace in this vale of tears and did so, at first, by converting from the Church of England (as had John Dryden), to Calvinistic Evangelicalism. It was at this time he formally took up the pen and began to write (mainly letters, but also lyrics)—mainly in the style of Swift and John Milton—which seemed to assuage his mental illness in that they have a sense of humor about them.

Cowper seemed to be on the mend: he’d found a mentor in a sailor-turned-preacher, Rev. Mr. John Newton, and a widow, Lady Anna Austen, who encouraged Cowper to keep at the writing. Further, he turned to active good works whilst living in Olney, serving the poor and hungry. He was able to keep up this balance of writing and religion, good works and friendship for almost 20 years.

Then, in 1773, Cowper suffered another in a continuing series of attacks of suicidal craziness when he became convinced (and here we can see the Calvinistic teachings catching up with him) that he was damned beyond the power of his ecclesial community to save him. He left Rev. Newton, Lady Anna, and determined to suffer alone in the rural areas nearby.

The pattern of bouts of “I-am-going-to-hell-and-there’s-nothing-to-be-done-about-it!” repeated themselves in 1787 and 1794.

As a sort of Protestant St. Francis of Assisi, Cowper found some solace in dogs, cats, rabbits and animals in general. He also kept busy as an amateur carpenter and gardener (in the latter, he was akin to Alexander Pope, who’d built his famous Twickenham Gardens).

But it was at the age of 50 that William Cowper realized “The Consolation of Poetry.” If he is perhaps not taken as “seriously” as an artist (like Swift, Dryden, Pope and Johnson), it is perhaps due to the fact that he himself considered himself a mere poetaster. Or to use his own words:

I have no more right to the name of ‘poet’ than a maker of mouse-traps has to that of an engineer.

This was not false modesty. But with the publication of his Olney Hymns in 1779 and Poems by William Cowper of the Inner Temple, Esq. in 1782, Cowper garnered acclaim on both sides of The Atlantic: Samuel Johnson and Benjamin Franklin greatly admired his work. In fact, so great was his renown as a poet that he was presented with the poet-laureateship in 1788, but declined the honor.

His final years were spent, ironically, as the most popular (if not famous) poet in England—and perhaps the most miserable man on that Island Kingdom.

Cowper was, despite his obvious mental instability, nothing if not industrious: He translated (from the Greek) Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey into blank verse. His own work mirrored Pope’s rhyming couplet’s and mock-epics. His “greatest work” was simply called “The Task.” It came about when he was searching for a topic and a lady-friend suggested “write about this sofa.” Thus began thousands of lines that became his best-known poem.

But perhaps my favorite work by Cowper is his simply-titled “Light Shining Out Of Darkness” which Cowper tells us is based on John 13:7:

God moves in a mysterious way,

            His wonders to perform;

He plants his footsteps in the sea,

            And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines

            Of never-failing skill;

He treasures up his bright designs,

            And works his sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints fresh courage take,

            The clouds ye so much dread

Are big with mercy, and shall break

            In Blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,

            But trust him for his grace;

Behind a frowning providence,

            He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,

            Unfolding every hour.

The bud may have a bitter taste,

            But sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err,

            And scan his works in vain;

God is his own interpreter,

            And he will make it plain.